21st annual Oxford Film Festival offers an expansive four-day celebration of indie film

The Oxford Film Festival, Mississippi’s largest film event, returns for its 21st installment on March 21-24. This year’s fest celebrates its first two decades of growth while also looking forward to its future.

“This year we’ve really focused on enhancing our audience experience,” said OFF Executive Director Matt Wymer. “We want the festival to be a transformative experience for all of our guests and visiting filmmakers. This year we’ll have close to 80 filmmakers in attendance. It’s a great opportunity for anyone to come out to talk about and learn about film.”

For the full festival experience, VIP access tickets that allow entry to all events are available.

 “VIP tickets also come with a one-year membership to OxFilm so that the fun doesn’t end when the festival does,” Wymer said. “It also includes access to our green room where we’ll have food from local restaurants.”

The OFF has grown from a labor of love by its founders into an expansive, multi-day event encompassing screenings, workshops, multimedia presentations, parties, educational events and more.

“All the educational workshops and classes are free,” Wymer said. “We have a session on mobile phone filmmaking geared to kids, a stunt action workshop, a set safety workshop, a copyright and fair use panel discussion and a technology and animation panel, too.”

Over the years, the OFF has become a nationally recognized event of the vibrant indie film scene, having been named a Top 50 Festival Worth the Entry Fee by Moviemaker magazine.

“I’ve attended the festival many times before as a filmmaker,” said Brian Ratigan, who has joined the OFF staff this year as Programming Director. “I’ve been a programmer with other festivals like the Atlanta Film Festival and Slamdance. As for Oxford, I’ve always really been impressed with the camaraderie it inspires between filmmakers and how well they treat their visitors. Like all great film festivals, it really is all about celebrating cinema and supporting the community.”

An event of OFF’s size requires a team of programmers, jurors and above all numerous volunteers to make it happen (and to provide that signature Mississippi hospitality).

“We definitely could not do this without all the people who volunteer their time,” Ratigan said. “I think it’s important that we’ve built a really diverse programming team of not just local artists but also out-of-state filmmakers like myself who are familiar with the festival, because that’s what keeps it fresh year after year. We strive to connect local artists with filmmakers from the around the world to embrace Southern hospitality at its finest.”

To pay tribute to the many people who have kept the festival going as well as growing since its inception in 2003, the documentary The First 20 Years will be shown Sunday afternoon.

“We interviewed around 16 people who have been involved with the festival over the years, from some of the early founders, to current and former board members and staff,” said director Damon Burks, who has been a part of the festival’s documentary team since 2016.

The festival grew out of the indie film community that was centered around Oxford’s Hoka Theatre, which the OFF’s awards are named after, as well as inspired by Mississippi’s oldest film event, The Magnolia Independent Film Festival, which began in West Point in 1997 before moving to Starkville. Not to mention being inspired by some good old Ole Miss-MSU rivalry.

“They really enjoyed the MAG and thought, ‘We can do this in Oxford, but better!’’” Burks said. “That very first festival was all volunteer-driven, without any of the staff and funding it has today.”

Today, the films shown at the festival run the gamut of genres from narrative to documentary to animation to experimental and beyond and originate from all over the world. The festival has also maintained a strong focus on both films made in Mississippi and films by Mississippi filmmakers.

One such highlight is the opening night film, Adam the First, which was filmed entirely in central Mississippi with a largely Mississippi crew. The screening will be the film’s Mississippi premiere.

“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to screen it for a local audience,” said Adam the First writer-director Irving Franco, who will be in attendance. “We really worked hard with some absolutely amazing people in Mississippi. We filmed it through the pandemic, which made things even more complicated. So to be able to circle back a couple years later with a finished film for the whole world to see is a great feeling.”

The film, starring David Duchovny and Oakes Fegley, tells the story of a 14-year-old boy searching for his real father. The film in many ways embodies the spirit of the film festival as its was produced 100 percent independently.

“It’s not easy making indie films,” Franco said. “We need events and institutions like this very badly that celebrate and provide exposure to films that tell real human stories and touch the soul, no matter the budget.”

Another Mississippi-made offering is Little Brother of War, a feature documentary about the Native American game of stickball produced and co-directed by Bryan Carpenter. Carpenter is also a Mississippi-based armorer who will present the set safety workshop on Saturday.

Filmmaker Antonio Tarrell has four films he worked on showing at the festival, all of which also tell Mississippi stories.

“I was born and raised in Mississippi, I’m from the little town of Bruce in Calhoun County,” Tarrell said. “Mississippi is rich with history and stories. There is so much history that should be told, so many stories that haven’t been tapped into. With my films, it’s important to me to tell these stories through my perspective, through my eyes.”

Tarrell was producer, director, cinematographer and editor for the documentary short (I’m Not) Your Negroni, which addresses the controversy surrounding bartender Joseph Stinchcomb when he created a craft cocktail menu in honor of Black History Month at the James Beard Award-winning Oxford restaurant Saint Leo. It’s a project that’s had a long road to the screen.

“We started filming it right before Covid hit,” Tarrell said. “I couldn’t get all the interviews done, and I ended up having to walk away from it for a while. I eventually revisited the project and pieced it together and it turned out well.”

Tarrell was also the cinematographer and editor for the aforementioned The First 20 Years documentary, producer and cinematographer for the documentary short Sites of Resistance and Healing, and producer and cinematographer for the documentary short I Believe I’ll Go Back Home: Robert Johnson’s Copiah County Roots & Living Legacy, a film about the living descendants of blues legend Robert Johnson from director Samantha Davidson Green (writer-director of the 2018 made-in-Mississippi feature Thrasher Road).

Friday night’s after party at The Powerhouse is inspired by two of Tarrell’s projects: Steven Johnson, the grandson of Robert Johnson featured in I Believe I’ll Go Back Home, is providing live music entertainment, and at the bar you can sample some of the drinks that caused the controversy in (I’m Not) Your Negroni.

Parties notwithstanding, the draw of the festival is the chance to see films before they’re widely available. Some even—such as in the case of the narrative feature Hello Dankness showing on Saturday—that you won’t ever be able to see at all outside of a festival.

“It’s a clip show movie, that takes parts from hundreds of films and weaves it together to tell a story about the 2016 presidential election,” Wymer said. “It’s a 100 percent arthouse kind of experience you won’t be able to see anywhere else due to copyright laws.”

For those that can’t make it this year for the whole festival experience, OFF has got them covered too.

“New this year on Sunday is we’re doing a ‘rewind,’ where we’re showing our award winners in blocks throughout the afternoon,” Wymer said.

The winners will be announced at Saturday’s Awards Party at The Powerhouse, where the best of the best will be celebrated with live music provided by Afrissippi.

“As someone who has done festivals year after year, it’s always great to see the new crop of talented filmmakers that emerges each time,” Ratigan said. “The throughline for all we do is celebrating independent cinema. That’s why we put features and documentaries alongside student films and the nontraditional storytelling in our FestForward offerings of animation, projections and experimental films. The real goal is to connect filmmakers and show that there’s no real blueprint to making independent cinema. We all just have to work together to celebrate it.”

The festival kicks off with a special installment of the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour Thursday at 5 p.m. featuring actor and author Andrew McCarthy. For more information, visit thackermountain.com.

For more information on the Oxford Film Festival, visit ox-film.com for a full schedule and ticket information.